Thursday, September 27, 2007

Darwinian & Other Inconsistencies?

A National Geographic study recently reported the dying of native languages at a rapid pace. Half of about 7000 indigenous languages are predicted to become extinct in the next 100 years. And along with them the potential loss to human knowledge and scientific and medical research that follows the loss of cultural observations tied to those languages. David Harrison of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, reports that one language vanishes every two weeks often when the last of its speakers die.

Others are committing millions of dollars to efforts to preserve the endangered languages by underwriting various projects that will record aged speakers, develop a written form, teach children, and/or encourage the writing of books in the threatened language. In their words, "the death of a language entails the loss of a community's traditional culture, for language is a unique vehicle for its traditions and culture."

As a lover of history, I concede that we would be impoverished if the oral traditions and stories of our past had not been preserved in written form, in spite of the fact that we, due to our depravity (willful and otherwise), continually fail to learn the lessons of history. I also decry any form of genocide or 'culture-cide' fostered on the false premise of a superior 'race' when in reality we are all sons of Adam. And although I never became proficient beyond the first conversation in freshman Spanish, I am willing to trust the testimony of those educators who argue the benefits of learning any language (but especially endangered languages) that makes English acquisition easier for those native speakers and also tends to keep them in school longer. I take issue with the premise that all elements of cultures or cultures themselves are necessarily worth preserving and that the loss of language necessarily means the loss of the best (or worse) elements of those cultures.

As Christians and churches engaged in training and sending missionaries throughout the world we have other factors to consider. And we need to think clearly as we allocate limited funds across multiple objectives. Some argue that missionaries should go home because they destroy cultures. Some think that Bible translation work is primary in reaching the unreached. We must think clearly about these issues in order to make the best investments.

Thinking clearly:

Could it be that the cultural knowledge of an indigenous people can be passed from one generation to the next in a new adopted language? Could it be that those who embrace the Gospel can still appreciate their culture while no longer participating in some traditions?

I still appreciate my Irish and German heritage although I speak English rather than retaining the Gaelic or German dialects of my ancestors. And while I am not even distressed to call myself an American (apologies to the other countries on the continent for my persistent ethnocentrism, I can handle "Yank" if you prefer) I still know who I am ethnically.

As conceded by the social scientists studying this phenomenon, the shift to another language is now more often the choice of the children (and parents?) than the churches (missionary expansion) or militaries (Islamic expansion) that in their view 'subjugated' the natives. TV, videos, and economic opportunities afforded by fluency in another language, seem now to be the larger 'threats' to these cultures. I would argue that while even these powerful (though admittedly suspect influences) can hurt any society (based on their content or economic philosophy) they pose more of a threat to the preservation of the social scientists' "human zoo." The gospel will preserve and undergird the best of any culture while also liberating its members from those fears and bondages common to all people and to which, with more knowledge, they would bid good riddance. To perpetuate something just because it is different without consideration of its contribution to ill or good to its society is irresponsible at best and immoral at worst.

Given their premise (which I don't concede), which is the greater loss? A culture's detailed knowledge and stories lost to posterity or an individual to eternal damnation?

It doesn't follow that this knowledge has to be lost: the cultural stories of the Cherokee that I have learned and enjoyed were taught to me in English. When children adopt another language should we spend the time and energy and human resources to translate the Scriptures into the languages they are abandoning?

Other questions:

How do we best convey the gospel? Through a written tract or through a church? Through translations few will read or through missionaries living with and speaking the languages and dialects of those they seek to reach. The best way to communicate truth is by precept and example. But it is in the repetition, with an aim for clarity, across the limitations of languages (whether that of the transmitting or receiving tongue), over time that wins the lost.

The book of Revelation depicts a redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Is this descriptive of the reach of the gospel to all groups (regardless of their preferred or trade languages) or does it, as some assume, convey a cacophony of praise spontaneously conducted in various languages – similar to what was experienced at Pentecost? More likely we will find our experience around the throne to be the cosmic reversal of Babel with us all speaking one heavenly language. Which would it be: Hebrew? Or maybe Aramaic or Greek since God chose each of them to convey His Word? Since sin's curse will then be fully reversed, perhaps we will praise Him in a New Heavenly Hybrid language created especially for our New Song. One which will be richer than any one earthly language could be by itself.

Sometimes those who believe in concepts of the "survival of the fittest" spend much time and money in intervention aimed at preserving the "endangered" rather than letting nature take its course. Sometimes Christians refuse to spend the time and discipline to learn the existing languages of those they seek to reach with the gospel message. Both are inconsistent.


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